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The Liberation of Sandbostel Concentration Camp

Whilst following the troops, mum was part of a medical unit that liberated a prisoner of war camp at Sandbostel. Amongst her possessions was a seven page report from Major Hugh McLaren of the 10th British Casualty Clearing Station. It is dated May 1945 and addressed affectionately to "Miss Laycock Chief Officer of the famous C Block." Below is a full transcript of that report which personally singles Freda out for praise towards the end,

The  following description of the camp implies some discontent that no large hospital could be produced  to help us in the early days. To be fair, however, the place has to be viewed as a small facet in the battle of northwest Germany, which was actually in progress when we moved into Sandbostel on May 6th. We all understood that no army could carry its 1200 Bedded General Hospital right up tothe fighting level to deal with emergencies like Sandbostel. On 28th April  the Guards Amd. Div put  in an attack for the purpose of liberating the camp, although this was off the main axis of their attack towards Bromorvoordo. The prisoners were therefore freed 10 days before V-day. The medical aid that a  fighting corps could spare was naturally small at start. First,168 Field  Ambulance and No. 31 Field Hygiene Section, then, on May 6th,  No  10 (Br) CCS came in. It was 4 days before we were satisfied  that the pig-sty days  were over. In those 4 hectic days of course, we M.O's were all " on edge"  and cursed the lack of nurses equipment etc.

We knew that our seniors knew as much about Sandbostel as we did, and we guessed that they too were cursing their seniors at the delay in getting up help. It would be interesting to know if our time to create order out of chaos;  viz,  4 days ; was up  to  standard as compared with the other camps released by the B.L.A.

The first view of the camp was just what I expected.  Miles of wire encircled each low hut; a further wire fence encircled the entire compound.  Watch towers equipped with searchlights and machine guns were placed on the circumference of the camp to  cover 11 exits. It was an ugly place to look at but when you entered the main part of the camp then you realised that it was built in a saucer-shaped depression, giving the prisoners a view of nothing but the sky and the wire wall.

The standard hut was about 40 yards long, each having a dark central corridor. In the "Hospital" where we were to work, 20 small rooms led off the corridor. In the Prisoner of War section, however, each hut was designed like a barn. There were a dozen shelves where the prisoners could lie down in close-packed rows;  an occasional foul mattress was seen, but for the most part the prisoners lay on bare wooden shelves. There were between 40 and 60 on  each shelf. The most  chaotic slum dwelling on the Clydeside was luxurious in comparison.

THE HOSPITAL

I was so sickened by my first visit to the hospital that I never had the courage to visit the Horror Camp where some 8000 political victims had been herded.

To each hut there were allocated 1 British Sister and 1 Medical Officer; German sisters were available about 1 for every 60 patients.

The huts were built  to accommodate 80 patients. In the block we had to look after we averaged 320 patients.

On visiting C Block to commence work there,  my first sensation was one of nausea. The latrines had been blocked for days without discouraging the patients from using them.

Two wards were equally offensive. On my first visit I was near to being sick. Standing on the floor or hanging on to the bunks for support were the merest skeletons of men. They were naked, unshaven and dirty. They defecated onto the floor where they stood. They had sunk so low that no trace of embarrassment was occasioned by the presence of the British or German sisters. Some 80% of the patients were too weak to rise from their beds. Moreover, they were in double tiered bunks. It was easy to see why the hospital was in this befouled state. Each nurse had 60 patients and one bedpan. The patients averaged between 6 and 10 motions per day with famine diarrhoea i.e. at least 2000 stools in our hut alone.

On my fist visit to C Block I discovered that six of the skeletons in bed were already dead. Two had been there long enough to have rigor mortis. Two German girl porters were summoned and the bodies were carried off and added to the long list of unknown persons in the common grave.

THE HUMAN LAUNDRY

Lt. Col. Prym RAMC and his 168 Light Field Ambulance took over the No 1 Horror Camp 6 days before we arrived. It seems that into a mass of dead, dying, and befouled humanity the SS had occasionally dropped a cartload of turnips or potatoes. Those who had the strength scrambled for food. Out of this human pig sty the likely survivors were picked out and passed to the human laundry.

The approximate figures for the 8,000 political prisoners were as follows:

Buried 1,500

Sent to us 4,000

Evacuated 2,500

The human laundry was a large marquee in which were placed rows of trestles supporting stretchers. The survivors from the Horror Camp were washed on stretchers and covered in DDT (anti louse) powder. Wrapped in a clean blanket they were transferred to a fresh stretcher and delivered to us by ambulance.

The work was so performed by conscripted German girls and women under supervision of RAMC personnel.

We saw very few lice in the hospital as a result of this system although there was evidence on practically every patient's skin that he had been infested.

The survivors, as at Belsen, were of many nationalities. We discovered one Canadian, one Jersey man and a coloured civilian who stated he came from Teheran, The youngest patients were mere boys. Some had actually entered the concentration camp at 11 years of age, others were Warsaw resistance fighters who were taken 12 months ago and were now 14 or 15.

The most starved of our skeletons weighed 39 lbs. 168 Lt Fd Ambulance found him alive but he did not survive.

THE SURVIVORS

Many of the severely emaciated were curiously apathetic. I had the impression that the brain was the last organ to be affected by starvation. In our cases, from a functional viewpoint at any rate, there was evidence of considerable derangement. About 50% of my cases were in such a depressed state of mind that the news of their liberation brought about little or no emotional reaction. They just stared dully at us. Or they would mutter "Waser-Waser" or "Koin Esson" (nothing to eat). I got the impression that they were so far down that the past and the future had almost become blank.

Another result of their treatment in the camp was the sang froid with which the prisoners regarded death occurring in a neighbour. It was often merely a signal to request the crusts or cigarettes under the dead man's pillow.

All of us had patients who interrupted our examinations with a remark like: "Zwei Tage Herr Dokter.....und kaputt." How often they proved correct.

On several occasions there was a macabre humour in the very fact of death. One skeleton beckoned me to his bedside and pointing up to the bed above him asked: "Ist er tod?" I examined the man and found that he was dead. I told him of this and he replied with a trace of a smile: "Gott sei dank" He then proceeded to detach  the groundsheet which he had used for protection from the droppings of the dead man above.

A few victims who were mentally unbalanced were less passive. They were frequently met in the corridors searching for food. Twice I was summoned to quieten a melee in the ward. On both occasions a crazed Russian was head and shoulders into the food pail. Nor would he come out in answer to our various shouts. A hard smack on his naked backside had good effect and off he went to his bed streaming with soup. There was little laughter at these incidents; all eyes were on the food pail.

To the question "How was it with you in the wards in the early days?" there could be but one answer, "It was a nightmare. For 4 days there was never peace." A continuous shout from one of the other wards "Schwester, Schwester - Scheisserei, Scheissorei" (call for a bedpan), or it was "Wasser-Wasser, ich hebb durst Herr Doktor."

Try as we might we could not cope with their thirst. In our hut I reckon we required 5 large cupfuls of water per head per day at a minimum i.e 30 ozs. That works out at 1,500 cupfuls per day. With one nurse and one or two helpers per 60 patients we failed to cope with even this amount. We evolved a system of continuous "Panni - Waalahs" who kept going the round with water. Even that failed, for some of the patients needed help to drink and this slowed down distribution. We made drinking bottles of saline transfusion sets for the more feeble patients with some success, but even then there was no guarantee that the patient would be allowed to finish his bottle. Should he fall asleep a neighbour would quickly empty it.

And so it was that for 4 days a stop in the corridor at any hour of the day brought forth croaks and groans in various tongues for water or a bedpan. But by the fourth day i.e May 10th we began to see hope. The noise had abated.

Living with the wreckage of humanity I learned some interesting facts. One man swore he had seen the SS push Jews in the "over 60 years" class out of the second floor of the Lublin General Hospital. Stunned or dead they were then carted off for burial. A Polish Jew told me he had seen the SS mow down his wife, father, mother and two sisters.

I think we all felt that the Jews had had the worst of it. They came from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia etc but they all had this in common, they looked even more helpless and pathetic than the rest. I soon learned not to inquire if their people at home had survived, and that strictly medical questions avoided emotional scenes.

MEDICAL IMPRESSIONS

These notes are in no sense accurate clinical findings. They are no more than impressions and I expect many of my colleagues will disagree with me on many points. In fact to make use of the vast amount of research material at Sandbostel teams of physiologists and psychiatrists would have been required.

The work of the medical officer was varied and never uninteresting. One minute he would be "winning" a soya boiler from under the nose or our indefatigable QM, another, he would be passing severe reprimand on a Russian kitchen raider (he understood the tone if nothing else). Capped and gowned in white and well sprinkled with anti louse powder we looked more like bakers than doctors. Most of us had a body belt on which hung drugs and a stethoscope. Diagnosis was necessarily made at speed and in the first week we had to give out medicine on the spot.

A simple form of German was understood by nearly all the prisoners. There were also certain words which the Poles, Czechs and Russians understood such as Scheissorei (diarrhoea), Schmerz (pain) and prima (OK). We managed fairly well but when it came to explaining to a Russian that he must take Sulphaguanadine tablets every four hours, a pantomime was performed by the medical officer with much use of the hands and facial expressions. For anyone with no olfactory nerve the scene on these occasions would certainly have caused considerable mirth.

1. DIET

Sgt Williams RMC had to find food for 2,000 instead of the usual 200 at a CCS, yet from the first day managed to give us three meals a day. Soup was the mainstay of the diet. As supplies came in it became increasingly thick until by the sixth day it was undoubtedly stew. In the surrounding district a certain amount of eggs, butter, milk etc was collected but for the first week we had not enough. For the first five days we could not produce or administer the ulcer diet recommended as ideal by the consulting physician. So we saw all the ill effects which we had been told to expect in famine - namely diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal cramp and distension etc.

With a German sister and one or two helpers for every 60 patients the problem of feeding the very feeble had to be tackled. We had some success with sucking bottles made from the transfusion flasks. These were laid beside the patient who then sucked  milk or (Ersatz) coffee when he felt inclined. Although it was a poor substitute for a proper nursing system, it worked fairly well.

2 DIARRHOEA

Practically all had famine diarrhoea. It lasted usually 10 to 14 days after resumption of diet. Black bread aggravated the condition and unfortunately we had nothing else for the first days. Sulphaguanadine cured the condition in 12 to 24 hours but it also improved quickly with careful dieting and kaolin and opium mixture.

3 TYPHUS FEVER and  TUBERCULOSIS

Of the 8,000 political prisoners, about 1,000 had typhus fever. The figure for phthisis is probably two or three times greater. It would be interesting from an academic viewpoint to know what proportion of the hundreds who died before our arrival, died of starvation. Our later experience suggests that intercurrent disease accounted for the vast majority of deaths. The final number to die from Tuberculosis among these when we evacuated will certainly run into hundreds.

A detailed report on Typhus and Tuberculosis is being made by our Medical Specialist.

4 SKIN

Although scabies was encountered in only six of my 320 cases, an intact skin was never seen. Bug bites and lice scratchings had all left their mark.

Probably the presence of Typhus kept the SS guards at a distance before our arrival, for I found no case of recent bodily injury (the SS did fire on the camp before departing on April 12th, but the wounded were evacuated before our arrival).

There was one fatal case of cancrum oris.

Six cases of parenychin required incision (out of 320 cases).

Two cases of Parotitis also required incision.

I think the general impression in the camp was that skin sepsis although present was not of unusual frequency or severity.

5 OODOMA

Although many of the convalescent cases had swelling of the ankles when they commenced to walk, I saw no case of gross famine oodoma. The German Medical officer who assisted in C block offered a solution. He stated that the Starvation Order only became effective in February 1945. Also he stated that in his experience in Russia in 1942-43 famine was prolonged over many months and led to a high proportion of the victims developing oodoma

6 AVITAMINOSIS

Subclinical avitaminosis was presumed to be present in all cases and compound tablets were given in massive doses. In my block we detected only two cases of polynouritis. No case of gross scurvy was seen in the whole camp.

7 BED SORES

In No 1 Horror Camp the patients had for the most part to lie on bare boards. We saw a fair number of pressure sores over bony points but considering the lack of protective fat and muscle, all were agreed that both the incidence and severity were less than anticipated. The main reason for this was that until they become moribund the merest skeletons seemed to retain their ability to alter position.

8 TRANSFUSION

In our block 30 drips were kept going night and day for the best part of a week. Some 320 transfusions were made in the camp - i.e roughly 10% of the patients were transfused.

After the splendid results in forward surgery I was disappointed on the whole with the improvement following transfusion. The occasional cerebral Typhus case was tided over the period when he could not drink. There were also cases of starvation who were also brought from imminent death. There was, however, a definite group who either did not revive or else relapsed and died after 48 hours.

It is worth recording that cases of severe dehydration may not meet their needs by drinking. We had several cases who had five or six pints of fluid by mouth each day yet required transfusion to produce a normal skin and moist tongue.

PSYCHIATRY

An outstanding example of the uncontrolled urge to self-preservation was seen in a patient who drank his neighbour's transfusion. The most common single mental effect, however, was apathy.

In C Block we had cases with mania who throw themselves out of the top bunk onto the floor with fatal result in all cases. They were all gravely ill from inanition; two had also typhus fever.

The first sign of mental recovery was seen among convalescent patients who, by the 3rd day, commenced to crave clothes. One Russian amused us by tottering about the corridor quite naked (like the rest) but for an old Russian hat. On being ordered away from the kitchen he would make an attempt at a smart salute.

When pyjamas arrived the whole face of the camp changed. Those who could walk were like schoolboys in their first long trousers. They made improvised cloth shoes, and almost strutted with pride.

The other gross mental symptoms quickly disappeared with the regular food and sleep. The hoarding of crusts went on but the animal-like behaviour had mostly disappeared after 10 days.

THE RESCUE PARTY

No 10 (BR) CCS were briefed by the CO on May 6th after they had their breaths taken away by looking around the camp. The detailed medical aspect of work was directed by our Medical Specialist Major J.M Ranking RAMC

Apart from 168 Fd Ambulance the hospital staff was eventually constituted as follows:

Nursing Officers 10
Medical Officers including 1 dental officer, 1 non medial officer 1 Lieut QM 15
Padres 3
10 British CCS NCOs 27
10 British CCS ORs 79
24 Field Transfusion Unit Officers 2
24 Field Transfusion Unit Officers 3
14 Field Surgical Unit Officers 2
14 Field Surgical Unit  ORs 7
50 Field Surgical Unit Officers 2
50 Field Surgical Unit ORs 8
11 Field Dressing Station Detachment 28
Pioneer Corps Attached: Officers 1
Pioneer Corps Attached ORs 43
Foreign Doctors (mostly fit for work) 30
Russian Lieuts Medical Corps ( equal to Staff Sergeant RAMC) 9
German Nurses (30% state registered 141
Conscripted German Women (ages 17 to 30 years) 200
Prisoners of War (German Medical) 51
TOTAL 661

It should be noted that approximately 10% of foreign workers were absent from varying forms of minor sickness.

That 10 CCS did not crack with fatigue during the intensive spell of work from May 18th was, I think, due to the fact that full scope was given to every man to use his own initiative. Even admitting that every man and NCO knew his job it was quite remarkable how few orders had to be given. I think the Germans were astonished at this.

Our nursing officers are of course specially selected and have considerable experience in working at a fast tempo. Among the medical officers bets were being made as to which sister would be first to break down, But none of them did break down. They became whiter and whiter in the face. Dark patches were visible under their eyes but it was the German sisters who first went sick or lame (over 10% for two weeks).

I think the splendid work of the German sisters and women helpers was partly a result of the example shown by the British sisters. Several times in the early days of the camp I met German girls who were weeping and not getting on with their work. They said they were terrified they would get typhus. It was certain cure to lead them along to see Sister Miss Laycock, in the middle of the typhus cases, calmly doing her work.

THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADE

We had 30 medical men from various European nations. Some were too weak to work a full day but on the whole most of them were quite fit and worked well. We were astonished at some of their ideas. For example in Typhus fever when the pulse rate is 160 and the temperature 104 degrees, the continental doctors stimulate the heart with cardiozolo, camphor, coramino or a mixture of the lot.

Our Russian colleague Major Bermistrov could hardly bear to walk between injections. He was one of the camp characters as he dashed about "Cromin's Holiday Camp" (the typhus block) a 20cc syringe in hand. "Excuse please - I go to make a Spritzo" was his usual greeting. But on occasions he would elaborate this "Russka doctor is very clever. Dr Bermistrov he is also very clever (Handshake)...... Excuso please etc"

When the Major heard that we fed the German workers on our rations he just screamed... "200gm Schwarzbrot, 2 Kartoffoln.. it is enough" and he made a great kick at some imaginary German pants. I discovered from him later that a German guard at his P of W camp had broken his scapula "for the sport" as he put it. But even the major settled down to an excellent piece of work. He even softened sufficiently to say that he admired the work of the German sisters. In fact he set off to cure his ward sister's dysentery "a la Russo".

I found the sister looking slightly pathetic in her quarters. On her lap was the Major's cure - a large bowl of sweet semi liquid "Horlicks" and bread.

The girls and women quickly settled down to work. They were dealt with fairly. They had reasonable sleeping quarters and excellent food. On this treatment the camp received the maximum help from them. They were very willing workers. Whether it was their previous experience of service under Hitler ("Dienst Jahr") or life in bombed Bremen that toughened them is hard to say. They were appalled of course when they visited the human sty which we called "the wards". This soon passed, however, and they carried corpses about on stretchers and buried them as if they had been in the undertaking business for years.

I asked a few girls from time to time if they felt ashamed of the camp. The usual reply was another question "Well... what could we do?"

It was interesting to watch the British method of treating the Germans. I feel pretty certain that our Russian allies will provide a control experiment.

THE LAST DAYS IN CAMP

Fraoulein Bittner's Interrogation

Place: Sandbostel                      Date: May 26th, 1945

Fr. Bittner: Over Woman of the German girls, half Australian, Age 35

Myself: "Fr Brittner - you have helped us well at the camp. Do you mind answering a few questions on political matters?

Fr. B "No"

Question 1: "Do you feel ashamed of this camp?"

A: "No our Fuehrer had good reason for doing this."

Question 2: "Do you condone the starving of these men?"

A: "Our Fuehrer has said. First I feed my soldiers, then my mothers and children, the others will then feed."

Question 3: "Fr B do you condone Hitler's killing of three million Polish Jews?"

A: "Yes the National Socialist Party has had this policy carried out. The Jews can go and live in their own country."

Question 4: "Do you really agree with gassing Jewish children?"

A (hesitant) .... "If they grow up they will come at us later ... it is better for them to die now.

It was a happy coincidence that the Field Security Police drove up to the camp some hours later with Fr. Bittner's name on their "wanted" list.

CONCLUSION

Our V Day celebration was replaced by Sandbostel. Although most of us had no doubt in our minds that Germany had to be beaten, we really did not fully appreciate the savagery of the enemy until we reached here. I am sure many of us shuddered as we pictured this wilderness of barbed wire on the Stockiemuir or Hampstead Heath..... the "Skeletons would then be ........ who?"

Hugh McLaren Major RAMC No 10 (Br) Casualty Clearing Station.

________________________________________________________________________

A SHORT HISTORY OF STALAG XB SANDBOSTEL PRISONER OF WAR CAMP*

In September 1939, the first internees, several thousand Polish prisoners-of-war were brought as first inmates to Sandbostel Camp, situated on a secluded moor between the Elbe and the Weser Rivers.

Before the Stalag XB was liberated in April 1945, many hundreds of thousands of men from many different parts of the world were imprisoned there (some for just a few days others for years). POWs mainly from the Soviet Union, France, Poland, Yugoslavia and Great Britain, Italian military internees, members of the British Merchant Navy, women who had taken part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and finally about 10,000 concentration camp prisoners.

Hunger, sickness, fatigue and violence were the reasons for the extraordinary number of deaths among Soviet prisoners in the winter of 1941/42 and the concentration camp inmates deported to Sandbostel in April/May 1945. Those who died at the camp are buried in the War Cemetery about 2km to the east. Their exact number is still unknown. Estimates vary between 8,000 and 50,000.

British troops liberated the camp on April 29th, 1945. At the end of May some parts of the camp were burnt down because of a typhoid epidemic. Between June 1945 and 1948 a few thousand former SS and NS leaders were interned there. From 1952 until 1960 the buildings still standing were used as a transit camp for juvenile refugees from the GDR (German Democratic Republic). In 1974 those parts of the camp which had not been turned back into farmland became the Immenhain Industrial Estate.

Most of the 25 buildings which still exist today were given "Listed" status in 1992.

In the summer of 1945 the Soviet Military Administration had a monument erected in the Sandbostel Cemetery in honour of the Red Army soldiers buried there. Four years later the entire cemetery was broken up and restructured. The original 53 rows of Soviet communal graves were rearranged into the present 14 collective graves. In 1956 the Soviet Monument was blown up at the instigation of the Bremervorde District Authority and the Lower Saxony Ministry of Internal Affairs, one reason being the allegedly exaggerated number of dead upon it.

The reburial of nearly 3,000 concentration camp prisoners from communal graves in the area to Sandbostel Cemetery was essentially completed in 1956. The remains of non Soviet POWs were for the most part transported to their home countries, those of the Italians to the Central Cemetery in Hamburg-Ojendorf. Today there are about 170 individual graves of Polish, Yugoslavian and unknown prisoners in the cemetery. After the war the national POWs veterans organisations and the organisations of concentration camp survivors such as Amicale Internationale de Neuengamme worked hard to ensure that the history of Staleg XB would not be forgotten and that the burial places at Sandbostel would be kept in good condition. From 1946, the Federal State of Lower Saxony was in charge of their maintenance; in 1973, Sandbostel Community took over.

* - The above article is taken from the archives of the Sandbostel Association.

Subsequently steps are afoot to safeguard the future of Sandbostel as a site of great historical importance. An article appeared in the Times newspaper on 28th January, 2006, written by Rabbi William Wolff under the heading "Germany must not neglect its terrible past." The article is reproduced below.